Introduction to Alexander Calder's Art:
American sculptor and artist Alexander Calder was perhaps one of the most unique and singular modern artists of his generation, and he holds the distinction of introducing a new idiom into the American lexicon. Calder’s moving sculptures, which fellow famed artistic disruptor Marcel Duchamp coined “mobiles,” defied the laws of physics and forever changed the world of modern art. A prolific artist working across multiple mediums, Calder’s celebrated body of work showcases the breadth of possibilities of what art can be.
Rouille sur journe by Alexander Calder | M.S. Rau
Calder's Ingenious Beginnings: The Mechanical Engineer Turned Artist
Alexander Calder’s journey as an artist was almost as unconventional as his creative oeuvre. Calder was born into a family of artists — his father and grandfather were esteemed sculptors, and his mother was a portrait painter. While one might have expected him to follow in their artistic path, Calder instead took a different approach.
Initially, Calder began to study mechanical engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. He had a passion for understanding the intricacies of machinery and mechanics. However, he soon found himself applying these skills in a wholly different world — the world of fine art.
In 1923, Calder enrolled in the Art Students League in New York City. Under the tutelage of artists like John Sloan and George Luks, Calder honed his painting skills and refined his artistic point of view.
Alexander Calder at the opening of an exhibition of his mobiles at the Galleria Dell'Obelisco in Rome in 1956.
While he was studying fine art, Calder worked at the National Police Gazette, illustrating both scenes from the Bronx and Central Park zoos and the Barnum & Bailey and Ringling Bros. Circuses. During this time, Calder discovered his innate talent for sketching animals.
"Seeing the Circus with 'Sandy' Calder," National Police Gazette, 23 May 1925 | Calder Foundation.
Concurrently, Calder began experimenting with sheet metal and wire to create other projects. All of these disparate influences coalesced, laying the groundwork for his burgeoning career as a celebrated Modern artist.
Alexander Calder, Calder's Circus, 1926–1931 | Whitney Museum of American Art
Calder's artistic evolution was marked by a series of pivotal moments, but perhaps none more so than his move to Paris in 1926. In the heart of the art world, Calder was immersed in the creative scene heralded by the likes of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, as well as fellow expats like Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. During this era, Calder's work transformed from two dimensions to three as he moved from ink and paint to wire, wood and metal. He began creating small, movable wood and wire figures that displayed a distinctive mechanical sensibility, reflecting the artist's unique background in engineering.
Of all of his experimental new works, it was Cirque Calder or “Calder's circus" that truly captivated the artist's peers. This miniature circus, complete with balancing acrobats and a roaring lion, quickly gained popularity and brought Calder into the same conversation with other artistic innovators of his time.
Calder’s ability to breathe life into inanimate objects showcased his exceptional artistic prowess. Clearly influenced by his time sketching scenes from the Circus, Calder's three-dimensional rendition also showcased his engineering skills and fascination with movement. Soon, Calder would explore these aspects of design in even more avant-garde, abstract applications.
The Making of the “Mobile”
Calder’s kinetic sculptures have influenced generations of artists. Contemporary artist Andreas von Zadora-Gerlof draws influence from several modern art luminaries to create spellbinding kinetic works. Check out this spotlight on the artist’s works to learn more about his moving oeuvre.
The early 1930s marked a significant turning point in Calder's career. Inspired by the color and composition of Piet Mondrian's work, he embarked on a journey that would change the course of abstract and modern art.
Deeply influenced by the work of abstract artists before him
, Calder began experimenting with nonobjective forms. Calder's breakthrough came in the form of kinetic art, characterized by abstract sculptures in motion. At first, these sculptures were motorized, but he later modified them to move freely, powered only by air currents.
These signature works were a fusion of his interests in physics, astronomy and kinetics, all imbued with a sense of playfulness. Upon viewing Calder’s first fully abstract kinetic sculpture, Marcel Duchamp called the creation a “mobile,” and thus Calder's signature medium of expression was born.
Public Commissions and Monumental Works
Calder’s Three Quintains (Hello Girls), 1964 | Los Angeles County Museum of Art
In 1933, Calder returned to the United States, where his abstract-organic sculptures, both mobile and stationary, garnered significant attention and acclaim. Calder and his wife Louisa settled in Connecticut where they refurbished a farmhouse on a sprawling plot of land. Here at this vast property, Calder produced his first sculptures for the outdoors, installing large-scale standing mobiles among the rolling hills of his property.
In 1943, James Johnson Sweeney and Duchamp organized a significant retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, propelling Calder into the spotlight of the New York art scene and solidifying his position as a leading figure among American contemporary artists.
With this newfound notoriety, Calder shifted his focus to large-scale commissioned works, which would dominate his practice in the last decades of his life. These works included largescale mobiles like the Three Quintains (Hello Girls), anchoring the original fountains at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and stationary abstract works like 1973’s Flamingo at Chicago’s Federal Center Plaza, which artist Jean Arp dubbed “stabiles.”
Along with these monumental sculpted works, Calder also produced the original LACMA logo poster, an iconic piece with original prints that continue to be sought after by collectors. The poster is still produced and sold by the museum today and has become an iconographic pillar of the famed museum.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, April 1, 1965 | LACMA
Influence on Modern Art
As Calder’s international renown grew, so did the breadth and diversity of his output. He produced several painted works in tandem with his small mobiles and monumental sculptures. His painted works demonstrate his unique understanding of space not only in his revolutionary sculptural mobiles but also in traditional mediums, offering collectors the opportunity to fill their own homes
with the famed artist’s works. Calder’s rare painted works offer an intriguing glimpse into his genius in color theory and preoccupation with geometric space, illustrating his interrogation of spatial planes in a two-dimensional application.
Mer de sable by Alexander Calder. 1975. M.S. Rau.
Painted in 1975, Mer de Sable vividly captures Calder's vibrant and dynamic artistic flair. Through a play on flatness and depth, it stands as a pure abstraction, delving into the dance between color and form.
The title, translated as "Sea of Sand," prompts intriguing interpretations. Perhaps Calder drew inspiration from the expansive sandy landscapes of Egypt, with the emblematic Pyramids of Giza as central figures. Or maybe, it hints at other parched terrains adorned with age-old relics. In his hallmark style, Calder embraces ambiguity, inviting onlookers to journey through various readings of his masterpiece.
Wearable Art Buckle by Alexander Calder. Circa 1946 | M.S. Rau
In addition to sculpture and painting, Calder also produced pieces of wearable art and avant-garde jewelry for his closest friends. This intriguing wearable art buckle is a beguiling example of these sought-after pieces. As Calder’s creations were only intended as gifts, these personalized artworks are deeply sentimental and represent some of the rarest creations in his oeuvre.
The brass buckle, which takes the form of a heeled crakow or winklepicker style shoe with a curling toe, was created for the artist’s dear friend Florence Knoll Bassett. The tongue-in-cheek design is a reference to Bassett’s nickname “Shu,” based on her maiden name Schust.
Art world superstars, including Georgia O’Keefe, Peggy Guggenheim, Man Ray and Joan Miró have all worn and cherished Calder’s exceptional handiworks, though Bassett — an avid jewelry collector — received three important pieces of Calder jewelry. Recent years have shown a resurgent interest in these unique creations, including a recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art focused solely on Calder’s jewelry.
Calder’s Influence on Modern Art and Enduring Legacy in the Art Market
Serpent vert by Alexander Calder | M.S. Rau
Calder's impact on modern art cannot be overstated. During his lifetime, Calder received numerous accolades, including the grand prize for sculpture at the 1952 Venice Biennale and the French Legion of Honor. His work has been featured in prestigious institutions around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Rijksmuseum, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art and the Museo Reina Sofía.
Today, Calder's legacy continues to thrive in the art market. His works are highly sought after, regularly fetching eight figures on the secondary market. Collectors and art enthusiasts cherish his creations for their playful yet profound exploration of movement and form.
Calder's journey from a mechanical engineer to an iconic artist demonstrates the boundless possibilities of artistic expression. His ability to merge science and art in harmony has left an indelible mark on the art world. Alexander Calder's enduring legacy is a testament to the power of imagination and the limitless potential of human creativity.
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